Dark Souls: The Board Game was a huge surprise. Few outside of England had ever heard of its developers, Steamforged Games, a company that’s been quietly growing over the last few years. Fewer still expected the Kickstarter to do as well as it did, earning more than $5.4 million to become one of the top 20 most-funded projects of all time.
The team executed well, and have met their promised delivery date. Inside the box is a final product that is identical to what was originally pitched to backers.
Trouble is, it’s just not a lot of fun.
Talking with the team at Gen Con last year, I was struck by the audacity of the project. Steamforged wasn’t adapting the classic video game series for tabletop, they were recreating it. All the darkness, all the inscrutable lore and every inch of the nearly exponential difficulty curve the Dark Souls franchise is famous for was to be included. And, at the end of the day, I’m afraid that’s just not a very good recipe for a board game.
Dark Souls: The Board Game begins with players selecting a mini-boss and a main boss to hunt for that session. The $120 core box comes with four mini-bosses and two main bosses, one of which is actually a pair of villains named Ornstein and Smough. Then, each player chooses a character (Assassin, Herald, Knight or Warrior), drops down their starting gear on a personalized sideboard and shuffles their class’ unique treasure cards into the loot deck. Finally, players randomly set up a series of tiles around the starting bonfire and get to work.
Play begins with a series of four random encounters that pit players against zombie-like Hollowed soldiers, heavily armed Silver Knights and the massive Sentinels from the Dark Souls universe. Players are free to take on the encounters in any order and, if they’re using the included campaign rules, they can even sprint through a space and avoid them entirely if they choose . When they succeed in battle, players are rewarded with souls which are then used to purchase random gear and level up. Once they grind enough, players can then choose to pass through the fog gate to take on the mini-boss.
Lather, rinse and reset the table for the main boss.
The trouble is that if one player dies, the entire party fails. The shared pool of souls are dropped on the spot, all encounters on the table are reset and players return to the bonfire to begin again. At this point a Spark is removed from the bonfire, counting down to the end of the game. The more players, the fewer sparks to go around.
Just as in the video game, death is necessary to move on. Death is the only way to get more souls, the only way to grind more levels and buy more loot. The early game’s strategy lies in knowing when to press your luck and when to hold back, and only through experience will you know when you’re ready for a boss encounter.
But imagine inviting some friends over to play this game for an evening. You will need to prepare them for the repetition involved, psychologically steel them to run the same encounters over and over and over again. Because that’s the game. That’s Dark Souls: The Board Game.
The real joy comes in fighting those mini-bosses and main bosses. Each is controlled with a unique AI deck, which is randomly generated before every battle. The deck is not shuffled again until halfway through that battle, when a new and deadly attack is added in. That makes boss battles an intricate dance, one that balances memorization and teamwork. Again, just like the video game.
Bosses will also sometimes run into a corner and beat on a wall to no effect. Just like the video game.
But, unlike the video game, skill doesn’t matter as much here. There can be no low-level Deprived run-throughs of Dark Souls: The Board Game. The entire party can be undone by a single roll of the dice, and if you don’t have hefty enough gear you simply won’t last long. The only way forward is to go back to the beginning and grind again.
Making matters worse, if you are not exacting and precise in your play at every step of the way you may never face the final boss in battle. If you run out of sparks, it’s game over, hours of time spent at the table lost, with the Dancer of the Boreal Valley just sitting there gathering dust on the mantel. That will naturally lead to quarterbacking, as the most experienced player at the table commands the other players to make the best choice in hopes of actually reaching the final boss for the night’s payoff.
I held back this review a few hours to get the lay of the land, and it seems that I am so far the only reviewer unsatisfied with the quality of the miniatures. They’re detailed, they’re massive, but they’re also a bit soft. That’s in part to prevent breakage, but mine arrived with a few extremely droopy weapons. Several of the multi-part boss miniatures weren’t glued together correctly, leaving hands and feet detached from the base or canted off at odd angles. The finer details on a few of the smaller models, way out at the thin edges, were obscured or lost entirely in several places on my set.
The plastic pack-ins for the minis are top-notch though, and you will be able to confidently store them and travel with them even after they’re professionally painted. But the tray to hold the many decks of cards is functionally useless, and once you pop out all the die-cut bits there’s simply no getting the toothpaste back in the tube. If you’re not painting the miniatures up, the better solution may be just to toss the pack-ins in the trash and dump all the bits back into the empty box for storage.
One part of the game that I regret not having enough time to experiment with is the campaign system. Two campaigns come in the box, one each based on Dark Souls and Dark Souls 3. The advantage they have is that progress carries forward from boss to boss. Loot is more expensive to purchase in a campaign, but you can sell back what you don’t want. That means players will be able to dig deeper into the random pile of loot, building out much more powerful versions of their characters over time. As it stands, the one-off skirmish format of the base game never really allows the characters to blossom to their full potential, and it’s possible some will be overpowered by the end while others have little if any progression over several hours of play.
Because of Dark Souls’ following, look for a booming cottage industry of homebrew mods for this game. I can see fans ginning up boss battle-only character builds that forgo the early game entirely. But for now, if you didn’t get in on the initial print run via Kickstarter, I would recommend pumping the brakes and keeping an eye on the game’s Board Game Geek page for fan-made updates.